Time To Invent

Xioazhou Sean Zhou
As a postdoctorate fellow in Ah-Hyung (Alissa) Park’s lab, Xioazhou Sean Zhou developed a process for recycling iron and steel slag into reusable materials. (All photos in this article by Timothy Lee Photographers)

Late last May, Xiaozhou Sean Zhou, an associate research scientist at the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy, was at the center of a press conference at the Columbia Global Center in Beijing. He and Alissa Park, professor in the departments of earth and environmental engineering and chemical engineering, unveiled their plans to build a $4–5 million pilot plant at the Baotou Iron and Steel (Group) factory in Inner Mongolia, China, to an audience of Baotou Steel and top Chinese government officials, members of the Chinese media, and the U.S. Embassy counselor. Just three years ago, when he was transitioning from a PhD to a postdoctoral fellow in Park’s lab, Zhou developed a chemical process that turns iron and steel manufacturing waste, or slag, into valuable materials that can be safely reused in a variety of industries, while also reducing overall carbon emissions.

In spring 2015 he and Park won a three-year U.S.-China EcoPartnership with Baotou Steel to demonstrate and commercialize their technology, moving from a lab demonstration unit to a newly built pilot plant. He was also one of six postdoctoral fellows selected for the first cohort of the Translational Fellows Program (TFP), an initiative launched by Dean Mary Boyce to provide funding and resources to research scientists who want to commercialize their research originating at Columbia Engineering by licensing or creating a startup.

Xioazhou Sean Zhou
Left to right: Jianzhong Cheng, Gangsheng Wu, Wenjian Yu, and Yizhong Wang of Baotou Steel; Scott Smouse, an adviser to the U.S. Department of Energy; Shih-Fu Chang, Xiaozhou (Sean) Zhou, and Ah-Hyung (Alissa) Park of Columbia Engineering; and Vatsal Bhatt of Brookhaven National Laboratory

Dean Boyce realized that postdoctoral fellows and advanced graduate students are at a particularly good point in their careers to commercialize their research and that support from the School could be crucial to move on to the next step. “Postdocs and PhD students are fearless, and that’s the perfect time to ignite the spark of creativity,” she said. “They are at the beginning of their careers, working with faculty to hone their skills and gain expertise in their field. This is an especially fruitful moment to nurture discovery and help them translate their innovations into tangible benefits for humanity.”

Officials from Baotou Iron and Steel (Group) Officials from Baotou Iron and Steel (Group) met with Columbia Engineering faculty and toured Zhou’s lab.

With support from the program, Zhou and Park launched their startup, GreenOre CleanTech LLC, in summer 2016, and that fall they commissioned a demonstration system with the capacity to process 10 metric tons of slag per year. Currently in operation at the Engineering School, the system is on track to process up to 300 kilograms by December 2017. In fall 2017 they will begin installing their project in Inner Mongolia, and they expect to complete construction by summer 2018, when they will start their pilot study. If the project is successful, Zhou sees a large global market for his slag treatment technology—virtually every country that is making or has made steel, iron, and aluminum is a potential customer.

“The Translational Fellows Program has given me opportunities galore to talk to different people, especially in the business world,” Zhou said. “By creating a synergy between my newly learned entrepreneur skills and the science and engineering knowledge I gained during my PhD work at SEAS, the program quickly prepared me for the startup launch and the subsequent daily challenges.”

The Translational Fellows Program is one of the many ways that Columbia Engineering is helping its students and faculty accelerate the movement of research from the laboratory to the marketplace. A competitive, nominationbased postdoctoral research program, TFP funds 20 percent of the salary—one day per week—of the selected fellows for


By Holly Evarts